Human Motivation: The Forgotten Element in Our Theories and Practices

“Companies that are afraid to commit to goals that lie outside the range of planning,” Gary Hamel and C.K Prahalad conclude in their booklet, Strategic Intent,“are unlikely to become global leaders.”  The authors argue that strategic planning fetters companies to the present and filters their views of possibility through the limiting lens of their current assumptions and limitations. Their…

Companies that are afraid to commit to goals that lie outside the range of planning,” Gary Hamel and C.K Prahalad conclude in their booklet, Strategic Intent,“are unlikely to become global leaders.”  The authors argue that strategic planning fetters companies to the present and filters their views of possibility through the limiting lens of their current assumptions and limitations. Their alternative to strategic planning is Strategic Intent: harnessing resources and human motivation to an all-consuming, shared ambition, such as beating competitors or innovating far beyond their current level. Companies that became global leaders “created an obsession with winning at all levels of the organization and then sustained that obsession for 10-20 years quest for global leadership.”

So why don’t associations become global leaders?  Most have embraced wildly ambitious missions for transforming industries and professions, becoming the world’s foremost resource on something, alleviating pain and suffering etc.  In re-reading their definitions, it seems unlikely that Hamel and Prahalad would consider such statements as equivalent to “strategic intent.” This is how they further clarify what they mean by strategic intent:

Strategic intent is more than unfettered ambition. The concept also encompasses an active management process that includes; focusing the organization on the essence of winning; motivating people by communicating the value of the target; leaving room for individual and team contributions; sustaining enthusiasm by providing new operational definitions as circumstances change; and guide resource allocation.

In other words, strategic intent implies a network of reciprocal relationships and actions beyond statements.  For one thing, strategic intent has to drive the organization’s priorities, incentives and rewards, resource allocations and criteria for success.  For another, strategic intent must be motivating to all stakeholders.  What many leaders and management theorists do not seem to realize is that a worthy goal or intent does not automatically translate into motivation for others.  The fundamentally flawed assumption that hinders any significant change is that mere articulation of a problem or goal will, in itself, catalyze the right action.

As world renowned leader Michael Maccoby says in his book:  Why Work: Motivating the New Workforce

Directing human motivation requires understanding values and needs and creating opportunities to express, satisfy and develop them.

Maccoby is one of the few thought leaders—the only one I know, in fact, other than Maddie Grant and Jamie Notter, co-authors of Humanize—who looks at organizations in terms of people rather than strategy, process or products.  He believes that unlike the industrial era, organizations in the knowledge service era require people who are “motivated, enabled, and empowered to achieve results by exercising judgment.”  Effective leaders in this era are not those who stand apart because of their expertise, efficiency or degree of control but by their ability to create and lead a motivating organization.   The managers who lead organizations, Maccoby believes, should be evaluated by their ability to “motivate employees to take responsibility for: solving problems, responding to customer needs, cooperating with team members, and continuously improving products and services…”

Maccoby describes what he calls the “Four R’s of Motivation;” the levers of engagement that must be activated to energize an organization behind a strategic intent and convert employees from performers of tasks to active partners in innovation and success.  The four R’s are:

  •  Responsibilities:  descriptions of tasks is only one aspect of assigning responsibilities; the other component is matching responsibilities with talents and providing opportunities for developing skills and competencies that increase one’s success in fulfilling responsibilities. Enabling staff to bring out their best potential in the performance of their jobs is the source of empowerment.
  • Relationships: in creating a motivating and empowering work environment and culture, organizations must go beyond considerations of efficient processes to consider the importance of relationships in human motivation. Interactive, relationship-centered organizations are more motivating than mechanistic, process and task-driven work environments.
  • Rewards that are meaningful to specific individuals’ criteria for value rather than generic; reinforce the behavior that produces value added for customers and are fair
  • Reasons for a performing a task or modeling behavior that employees understand and embrace, and that resonate with their values and motivations.

Maccoby’s research illustrates that the more motivating an organization is the greater its ability to compete in the knowledge service age. In a similar vein, we are finding in our research that there is a definite relationship between an organization’s orientation (inward or outward) and degree of staff empowerment on one hand, and its capacity to adapt to and resonate with today’s fluid markets on the other.  I copy below an index of some of our research findings, comparing practices and norms driving the management of people between two categories of organizations.  Where do you think your organization fits in these patterns?


Association- (product or supply) centric Demand-  (member, customer, market) centric
Habits, Rituals
  •   Formal   strategic planning processes
  •   Processes   that involve multiple layers of approval and political consensus




  •   Ad   hoc brainstorming;  cross functional,   cross-industry conversations that include customers and stakeholders
  •   Politically   based “committees” have no place in product development and innovation.  Direct and speedy processes involving staff   and customers/stakeholders
Norms –rules, measures of success, market orientation practices,    
  •   Top   down, command and control. Siloed structure and culture
  •    Incentives   & rewards value efficiency; performance of assigned tasks and management   of processes
  • Staff   roles limited by silos; staff responsibilities are limited to one point in the   product cycle (e.g. design, delivery or management). No accountability for   results, shared risks and rewards
  •    Limits   to staff authority and decision-making through hierarchy; prescriptions and   policies that dictate how things are done;    and limits of innovation within silos
  •    Staff   are given scripts, and prescriptive processes and behavior to provide   customer service or design a new product
  •    Planning   through lengthy, politically-driven and highly structured strategic planning   processes
  •   Innovation   & change are limited to product innovation within specific departments or   functions; hindered by “sacred cows” and legacy programs and practices.
  •  Programs   and products follow specifications and adhere to association policy and   standards, thus discouraging large scale experimentation and innovation




  •    Distributed   power and decision-making;    opportunities for cross-functional roles and larger scale innovation
  •     Incentives   & rewards value innovation and outcomes on the basis of value delivered   as perceived by members
  •   Staff   roles defined by member needs and outcomes vs. function. Ensuring the optimal   solution to member problems drives cross- functional collaboration and work   across units.
  •   Staff  participate in market discovery and   strategy setting and understands roles in larger organizational goals;  staff is given leeway for using judgment   and improvising to solve problems or design new products
  •   Trust   in human capacity for value creation and innovation;  allow for improvisation and thinking on   one’s feet
  •  Through   continuous brainstorming, rapid pilot testing and experimentation
  •    Broad   parameters for innovation & reinvention. Innovation is part of the   organization’s DNA and has no limits on the format or model or governance how   to deliver unique responses to demand.
  •   Entrepreneurial   processes for product/business development from the outside in; authority to   forge strategic relationships and develop product lines outside rigid   specifications and existing categories

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